Live and Listening, the new album from John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, is the result of the stars aligning one evening in May 2019. A debut concert in an intimate new hometown venue. A band on a creative roll, with a new batch of songs ready to record. A pristine sound mix. And a generous audience hanging on every word and note.
The magic of that night is palpable on Live and Listening, which showcases eight new songs as well as exuberant jams on fan favorites such as the story song “Sycamore Tree” and the bluegrass burner “Fly.”
Recorded at the 443 Social Club and Lounge in Syracuse, New York, Live and Listening is set for release on October 16—Rodgers’ fifth album on his own Words and Music label. Five years have passed since his last full-length release, Almost There, Sammy winner for Best Americana, but he hasn’t exactly been idle in the interim—publishing two books (Beyond Strumming and the second edition of The Complete Singer-Songwriter), serving as editor at large for Acoustic Guitar magazine, teaching songwriting at Syracuse University, and performing around the northeast, among other projects.
As a songwriter, Rodgers has always explored the full spectrum of grooves and expression—as NYS Music put it, “JPR may be the quintessential acoustic singer-songwriter, but he colors with a full palette of folk, rock, blues, and soul.” On Live and Listening, his band, featuring Wendy Sassafras Ramsay (clarinet, flute, accordion, guitar), Josh Dekaney (percussion kit), and Jason Fridley (alto saxophone, bass), brings all those colors to thrilling life.
The first single, the blues-rock anthem “How Long Till It’s Too Late,” is a powerful wake-up call on this era’s bitter polarization. The theme of social action emerges, too, on “Holy Man,” in which Ramsay weaves exquisite flute and clarinet lines around Rodgers’ haunting melody and accompaniment on the three-string Strumstick.
In the lighter side, “Shoulda Coulda” is a wry look at the human tendency to rethink life choices, while “Googling” takes its words—literally—from big data’s repository of online searches.
“Write Again,” performed as a duet with guitar and clarinet, was inspired by Jack Bocchino, the photographer and legendary support of local music who was honored this year by the creation of the Jack O. Bocchino Spirit of Syracuse Sammy Award. Rodgers took a poem by Bocchino about missing the days of writing letters, added words to extend the story, and set them to a sweetly old-fashioned tune.
Live and Listening also captures, for the first time on record, the improvisational power of Rodgers’ “wickedly good, subtle guitar playing” (Minor 7th) and the band. The album’s epic eight-minute rendition of “Sycamore Tree” showcases the masterful grooves of Josh Dekaney, playing a one-of-a-kind hybrid percussion/drum kit. And on “Only the Soul,” Jason Fridley cuts loose on saxophone to bring the album—and the show it captures—to a thrilling close.
The album title is a nod to what Rodgers calls the most important characteristic of this band—and all good musicians: listening.
“While it seems that the job of a musician is to project sound and fill space, in fact what’s even more important is tuning into what’s happening with the other players and in the room,” he says. “And once you’re tuned in, then you try to complement or color the moment. With this band, I’m continually amazed by how everyone picks up on the smallest musical ideas—echoing or developing or commenting on them. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
The conversation continues at the band’s release party on October 16 at the 443 Social Club and Lounge—where the magic happened.